Coverage of The Queue to see the Queen's coffin is another symptom of Britain's mourning sickness.
Previously: Mourning sickness
The British media's coverage of the death of Queen Elizabeth II is a combination of cowardice, craven careerism, and the completely unhinged.
The BBC is live streaming the coffin. As I was writing this sentence, 5287 people were tuned in to see others walk slowly past the Queen lying in state, chivvied as they go by police and security guards. This is where the queue gets you, where hours of waiting are repaid with the chance to glimpse an oak box that was completed 30 years ago, guarded by figures in uniforms stuck in another age entirely.
CoffinTV feels like an accidental piece of conceptual art, an idle thought by Marina Abramović made reality or a cheap joke by the ghost of Andy Warhol. The BBC says the stream is “for people who want to pay their respects virtually”; it’s technologically-enabled gawping, there for people unable to gawp in person because of logistical, geographical or physical impediment.
Getting into Westminster Hall is the end point of the queue and the purpose of being there as every broadcast package and article says is to “pay respect”. It’s one of those phrases that means whatever you want it to mean, papering over motivations that are less easy to be moist-eyed about. Desires to “have an experience”, be “part of history” — we all are whether we make the index or not — contribute to spectacle, and get on TV are all beneath the paid respects, scrabbling around like ferrets in a sack.
The flexible way that the media is approaching the concept of “respect” is behind the pile of stories about a woman who managed to see the Queen’s coffin seven times during the proto-Queue in Edinburgh. That her serious of mourning speed runs makes the whole exercise sound like a particularly deranged visit to a curiously morbid theme park did not prevent headlines such as The Mirror’s Woman who visited Queen's coffin SEVEN times in 16 hours explains how to beat queue.
Inevitably, The Queue itself is a happening that holds great fascination for the press and broadcasters alike; it can be analysed, exaggerated, extrapolated out to grand theories, cherry-picked for interviews with the heartfelt, the eccentric, and the extreme, and editors can send unfortunate hacks to ‘experience’ it.
The Times dispatched its Science Editor, Tom Whipple, to embed himself in The Queue all night and all day. Thankfully, out of respect to Her Majesty, science has stopped for the duration. I can only assume there’s a news editor with a grudge against Whipple as The Sun sent a feature writer, Thea Jacobs, to write its “I queued all night and this is what I learned” piece. Still, he managed to get himself into the first group to enter the hall while Jacobs’ piece ends hours earlier with her still in The Queue.
Coverage of The Queue has led to crossovers in The Queue Extended Media Universe. Whipple writes about ordering Deliveroo to Lambeth Palace which, in turn, earns him a reference in Jacobs’ article as "one generous journalist [ordering] pizzas”. He’s also appeared on MailOnline in a picture captioned, “A man brushes his teeth in the queue on the banks of the Thames opposite the House of Parliament”, much to his colleagues’ hilarity.
This all plays into the resilient myth that Britain is a land of people who adore queuing. The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, told people in The Queue:
We are honouring two great British traditions, loving the Queen and loving a queue.
A glimpse at Queuing up in Post-War Britain by social historian Professor Joe Moran undermines the media certainty that The Queue rules as much as the Queen ever did. While lining up politely was pushed in propaganda as a British value during the war, from the 1950s onwards, queues were used as a symbol of political failure by Tory politicians. In a 1950 pre-election radio address, Churchill thundered:
Why should queues become a permanent, continuous feature of our life? ... The Socialist dream is no longer Utopia, but Queuetopia ... Our earnest hope is that it may be granted to us to proclaim not the continuance but the doom of the queues and restore the normal relations between the shopkeepers and the public.
That neologism — “queuetopia” — was inevitably seized upon by the press as was the idea that the working class had got unforgivably above itself.
In 1957, five years into the Queen’s reign, a leader in The Times1 argued that the middle classes were angry because there was "no longer a common system of manners... [and that] it is nowadays hard to have a relationship with a subordinate which rests on mutual consideration based on acknowledged authority."
Now at the end of that second Elizabethan era, the rage beneath The Queue is still there. While Whipple’s story is largely about chumminess and camaraderie, The Times’ straight news report on the events details anger at the VIP lane:
… there was an uneasy disconnect between the two lines of grief flowing either side of the Queen’s coffin.
This perceived “queue-jumping” by parliamentarians and their families ahead of the public who had waiting for hours has led to a backlash for the Westminster authorities.
… Eric Burton, 23, who left his home on Isle of Wight at 9am to join the line, was one of the many disappointed by the news that a VIP queue was being formed inside Westminster Hall as he waited patiently outside.
“I don’t really like how MPs always get the front row tickets,” he said. “They should join in with the rest of the queue. We’re all flesh and blood in the end and we all want to pay our respects to the Queen. We’re all human, why should they be treated differently?”
There is also anger inside Westminster that only those directly employed by the parliamentary authorities get privileged access. It has not been extended to contractors such as cleaners, security staff and caterers who have been helping to prepare the Palace of Westminster for the sudden influx of mourners.
That’s the truth behind the myth of British queuing; it exists to create a national self-image of a phlegmatic and pragmatic people but also to persuade ‘us’ to get in line while the members of ‘them’ deemed special enough can skip it with impunity.
The thousands in The Queue are assumed to represent millions more. In monologues like Nick Robinson’s during Today on Radio 4 this morning, these “ordinary people” are turned into symbols and signifiers. The unctuousness of the speech was increased by Robinson’s attempts to ascribe extra quality to the silence in Westminster Hall and the lifting of a line (“London has not just one river this morning but two… the other a river of humanity.”) uncredited from Vincent Mulchrone’s Daily Mail report on Churchill laying in state in 1965, which the paper reprinted this week:
Two rivers run silently through London tonight, and one is made of people. Dark and quiet as the night-time Thames itself, it flows through Westminster Hall, eddying about the foot of the rock called Churchill.
Robinson was far from alone in grubbing for posterity with his words. For The Times, the reliably odious Quentin Letts attempted to refashion himself as a kind of Aldi-knockoff Auden:
Youngsters, oldies, the stiff-backed, the half-bent, a few in coat and tie but many more in casual dark garb: the communicants, for that is what they could have been, were a mix. A foggy old gent with tangled grey hair carried a hessian bag. Twin sisters in their thirties stopped as one in front of the mighty catafalque, bowed as one, left as one. Not a word. A grandmotherly figure tugged at her shopping trolley. A chap in agricultural green jumper and patched trousers removed his flat cap, fingers nibbling at it while he gazed for a couple of seconds and then shuffled on his way.
Condescension lurks just beneath the surface of the reports while any hint of acknowledging how bizarre the spectacle is — warnings that The Queue will produce “horrible stories of suffering” — must be avoided. An 85-year-old waiting all night in the cold and rain as featured by The Daily Mail or a 63-year-old telling The Mirror that entering the hall would be “like having your own private audience with her” is good and normal and fine.
Matt Roper, the Mirror feature writer dispatched by the paper to spend 22 hours in The Queue, nods to the ersatz nature of much of the coverage:
A gap in the rain raises spirits, and an impromptu rendition of God Save The King. TV crews rush over asking for a repeat. We sing it again for the BBC.
The Queue is a performance and the coverage of it is a performance about that performance. Hundreds of thousands queuing feels huge, even more so when papers and broadcasters have their attentions fixed upon the scene, but the extrapolation of The Queue as a representation of another myth — “the national mood” — is narrative not news. The lying in state is designed to create these scenes and media anticipation helped to encourage them. It is an illusion of spontaneity.
That is not to say that the individuals who make up The Queue are not genuine in their feelings but the coverage of it is not about understanding the individual but manufacturing the universal. How many people’s views are represented in the shout of the man charged for heckling Prince Andrew or the football fan served with a lifetime ban by Preston North End for tweets that mocked the monarchy?
[The Queen was] a shining example to everyone. All my life she’s been everywhere — from Brownies and Guides when we swore allegiance to her to the stamps and everything. I’m so pleased shops are closing on Monday because this isn’t about religion or anything like that but a woman who’s lived her life for this country.
That is one person’s testament to their idea of the Queen but it’s also a tribute to the effectiveness of the PR machine, to the consent manufacturing that the coverage of The Queue continues. If you asked those featured in radio and TV reports and quoted by newspapers what exactly the Queen did for them and how she “lived her life for this country”, many would struggle to give a coherent answer.
When commentators write of “the magic” of monarchy, the word they omit is “trick”.
‘Serving One Another’, The Times, 18 April 1957